Key facts. Key people. Brand keys. The ugly phrase, ‘It’s key’.
Take the word ‘key’ away from the advertising world and, perversely, a whole raft of critical thoughts disappear behind closed doors and become unreachable. Deprive some individuals I know of its use and they would default to inarticulate mumbling. Finding an alternative – a handy synonym or two – would be too laborious. As a sort of lifebuoy, grabbed in flailing sentences, ‘key’ is rammed into the slots of so many exchanges.
The word is used to steer a phrase forwards: the ‘key performance indicator’ (or, hideous acronym, ‘KPI’). It is grabbed as a ubiquitous paddle. Waggled about in streams of marketing speak, it keeps things bobbing along. Such is its ubiquity, it has become all but divorced from the object that inspired its employment (in advertising and other occupations) in the first place.
Every now and then, we’re reminded of the use and necessity of real keys, those passports that unlock the barriers of our lives, the protective, secretive, secure and sometimes irritating doors of our existence. None more so than in an unusual combination of events that I couldn’t make up if I tried.
I am not a footballer. I never will be. Through some quirk in the space-time-guestlist continuum, I was first invited to the McCormicks football club dinner in 1984. The agency team was the Nutford Parrots. (We were based in Nutford Place.) About thirty people were invited by the president and head of media, Gus Annetts. It was held in new premises that Eddie, proprietor of our local Italian restaurant, Salino’s, had just secured in an Edgeware Road basement. We dined on alcohol and some very funny speeches. Eddie, the genial incarnation of a large and aging Maradona, dumped neverending bottles of Sambuca on our tables and nodded with patient stoicism as flight after burning flight of amaretti papers rose haphazardly towards the ceiling.
I was invited again in 1985. This time, the venue was the upstairs room at The Goat, a pub in Mayfair. Gus decreed that, this time, it should be a bad taste dinner. Everyone took the dress code to heart. We looked a shocking bunch, garish peacocks in hideous plumage, a collective horror show of ill-matched clowns. Steve Baker, a charismatic media man who enjoyed Sealed Knot English Civil War re-creations at the weekends, stole the show. With the friendly looks of a teddy bear and a touch of the young Winston Churchill, he told long, engagingly filthy stories with a flair that should have made him a fortune on the comedy circuit. We had a good time.
My own wardrobe comprised a Paisley shirt with enormous wing collars, terrible worsted flares and clumpy yellow shoes like blocks of Gouda. I topped off the look with a massive mackintosh, a black marquee of Dementor styling, bought from a second-hand shop in Oxford. I had changed at the office in Nutford Place.
The evening echoed the previous year. We laughed and laughed as the Parrots achievements on the football field were acknowledged in speeches that attested to modest success. Long before Toy Story broke upon the world, the club’s motto could easily have been, ‘Falling with style’ – both on and off the pitch. Around closing time, I wobbled out into Mayfair, hailed a taxi and headed home to the flat I rented in Maida Vale. My landlady – the impossibly glamorous and loveable Cath Johnson – was out that night, staying with her boyfriend of the time. I would have the place to myself. Paying off the driver, I turned to the door of our building and reached for my keys. The mackintosh’s pockets were huge but I was trawling in barren seas. They weren’t there. Shit. Where were they? Woozy, fuddle-headed tiredness gave way to panic. The realisation struck. I had left them in the pocket of my suit, back at work.
The flat was on the first floor. My bedroom had a tiny verandah outside the window, really the roof of the mansion block porch. Improvising, I tried to manoeuvre a metal ladder, tied to scaffolding on a building site a few doors down, thinking I could climb up to my room. Within seconds, I was shouted at angrily from more than one window and beat a hasty retreat. Morosely, I reasoned that I had to go back to the office. I hailed another cab on Elgin Avenue and returned to Nutford Place.
In the 1980s, twenty-four hour security was a rarity. Empty offices were simply locked and left unmanned. McCormick’s was no exception although I was unaware. I rang the bell and banged futilely on the plate glass. It was a little after midnight. The reception people wouldn’t arrive until 7am at the earliest. A sort of dim inspiration struck.
Cath’s squeeze at the time was Anthony Daniels, an extremely likeable actor and, in his own words, one of the luckiest. As the man who played C3PO in Star Wars, he was on a percentage of perhaps the highest grossing film franchise of all time, portraying a character known by countless millions. Nevertheless, he could still venture out in public without fear of being recognised. It just so happened that he lived about 200 yards away from McCormicks. I wandered towards his home, set in a terrace of two-storey Georgian cottages.
I was extremely nervous of disturbing Cath and Mr Daniels. As unwelcome interruptions go, I was about to present a textbook case of hideous ambush. With a deep breath, I grabbed a pebble and stood outside Number Eleven. Channelling distant memories of cricket field accuracy, my first throw miraculously hit the upper window with a satisfactory bang. Stifling embarrassment, I readied my speech. The window flew open. A balding, white fringed head appeared and its owner was deeply unhappy. It was neither my landlady nor the actor. I was told, in forcible terms, to ‘procreate yonder’. The man threatened to call the police. It was the wrong house.
Hopelessly confused about which exactly was the right number, I apologised and fled. Was it fifteen – or thirteen – or perhaps another one? Addled, wary and with no mobile phone (in those days), I stalked off back to the Edgeware Road. It was now about 1.30am. I had £10 in my pocket. I’d left my wallet at the flat. In the pre-card economy, it was always about having cash, and I kept my bank card and wallet in a safe place. Leaving it behind was a ruse to avoid loss whilst under the influence. Leaving the keys in the office was just plain stupid.
All that remained was the hotel option. I walked sorrowfully along Sussex Gardens peering at the dodgy boarding establishments, solicited heavily by the clumps of working girls. I declined as politely as I could. In an echo of Monopoly, I wanted a hotel for a tenner. I asked at two or three places, but was laughed out of each. That freezing, winter night, deadened with the delayed effects of my boys club dinner and now brimming with full-on anxiety, I needed Old Kent Road, not West End, prices. With no sense of direction, I ended up opposite Paddington Station and sidled through the door of The Metro Hotel. I took the flight of stairs to what appeared to be a brightly lit reception. The man there stared at me from where he sat with alert interest. I was suddenly very aware of how I looked and felt. Beery, in a flowery shirt, with clumpy yellow shoes like clogs gone wrong, in a big, swishing mac, red eyed and rather desperate.
“Excuse me,” I faltered, “I’ve just been to a bad taste party, I’ve locked myself out of my flat and I need somewhere to stay for the night.”
He gave me a hugely encouraging grin as he opened the door behind him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he repeated reassuringly, with the tone that couples who’ve been married forty years use to address each other. As the door swung open, he continued, “These are my girlfriends. Which one do you want?”
Two girls lolled on a bed and looked at me with studious indifference. They were in various states of undress and not entirely alluring upholstery. I looked at the man aghast. “No, no,” I protested. “I really have been to a bad taste party and locked myself out. I just need a bed for the night.” His face fell, and he he became brusque and cold. He took my tenner and jerked his head up the next flight of stairs. “First door opposite.”
I clumped upstairs into a room with two single beds and a yellow lightbulb in the shadeless socket. A basin and a scrap of curtain completed the decor. I fell onto the bed, trying not to think about how many people might have done the same in recent hours. I slept badly until 6.30am, hoicked myself up to the basin and, for some reason, shifted my gaze to look down into the waste paper bin, half tucked beneath. Like a washed-up octopus, a wreath of discarded and obviously used condoms squatted in its depths. I fled the room and the hotel and practically ran to McCormick’s, where the handyman opened the office at 7am.
With no cash but my keys and still in my bad taste garb, it was time to head home, have a shower and come back to work. On the Number Six bus, the conductor asked me “Where to?” and I said, “Elgin Avenue.” “30 pence,” he rattled off. With emphatic petulance, I muttered, “I don’t have any money.” He looked at me for a second, turned on his heel and let it go. I could have hugged him.
Never have I been so grateful to put a key into a lock.
It’s memory that resurfaces periodically. From that day, I have always more careful about keeping a key to hand and, perhaps unsurprisingly, its use in my vocabulary.